Waiting for Mr. Right May Be an Evolutionary Wrong

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Although it's easy to list all the qualities you'd like your ideal romantic partner to have, a new study finds that settling for someone who is good enough has advantages, at least evolutionarily, over waiting for the perfect match.

In the study, researchers used a computer model to look, over thousands of generations of evolution, at risk-taking behaviors in gambles that potentially have a high payoff, such as choosing a mate. In an evolutionary sense, holding out for perfection can be considered a risky behavior.

"Primitive humans were likely forced to bet on whether or not they could find a better mate," study author Chris Adami, a microbiologist at Michigan State University, said in a statement. "They could either choose to mate with the first, potentially inferior, companion and risk inferior offspring, or they could wait for Mr. or Ms. Perfect to come around," Adami said, adding, "If they chose to wait, they risk never mating." [The 6 Most Tragic Love Stories in History]

In the study, Adami and his colleagues were interested in finding out which circumstances might affect people's decisions in making once-in-a-lifetime decisions that have a high future payoff, like the chances of having offspring. 

The results suggest that people's mating strategy is linked to the size of the group in which they are raised. Those raised in a small group (of fewer than 150 people) were much more like to be averse to the risk that comes with waiting for perfection than those who were raised in a larger group. In smaller groups especially, "an individual might hold out to find the perfect mate, but run the risk of coming up empty and leaving no progeny," Adami said.

In a small group, you're at an advantage if you settle for a "sure bet" early on, he added.

A general tendency to play it safe may have its roots in the fact that primitive humans lived in small groups, where mates were scarce, the researchers said. The evolution of risk aversion may have had more to do with the size of a people's immediate groups rather than the size of the whole human population, they added.

Nevertheless, not all people develop the same amount of risk aversion. The whole population may have benefited from the fact that a range of behaviors evolved, with some people willing to take more risks, and others less so, Adami said.

The findings were published Feb. 4 in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

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Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.